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Published August 25th 2015
The town divided by the brewers
Initially founded in 1840, Oakbank is most famous for its annual Easter horse racing events held at the historic racecourse on the northern side of the Onkaparinga River. But Oakbank is more than 140 years of horse races - in fact its origins stem from a pair of competing breweries that split the town into two, and created a bitter gulf that continued for many years.
This fact and many more are contained in the Oakbank Heritage Walk, a scenic 3 km walk that takes walkers past some 40 items of significant heritage within the town. The walk starts in the centre of town alongside the Johnston playground, and continues through the main streets highlighting buildings and features of significant interest.
It was 1843 when the first brewery was opened in town on the banks of the Onkaparinga River. The Johnston brothers had recently arrived from Scotland and they loved the area and the flow from the river so much that they built the Johnston Brewery. The original buildings from this brewery have been well maintained over the years, and can be seen within the grounds of the (now) Johnston Cellars.
The brewing life in the mid 19th century was enormously successful and James Johnston used some of the proceeds to build Oakbank House, a mansion at the northern end of town near the brewery. Meanwhile Andrew Johnston was to build his mansion Dalintober at the other end of town, ensuring that between them they could keep an eye on the growth of the whole town.
The 1860's saw the town continue to grow with numerous shops built to service the growing number of workers and passing tourists. Many of these shops are still standing today, albeit in slightly different use than they were 150 years ago.
The strong English heritage saw only one church of significance constructed being the Methodist Church in Elizabeth Street. Like many others in South Australia it has now become an attractive and unique private residence.
In the 1880's the wealth of the Johnstons could not be ignored, and Henry Pike set about founding a second brewery in the town. Henry Pike tapped in to the underground spring that fed the Johnston Brewery and Pikes Brewery was off and running. Pikes Brewery, residence, shop and cellars still stand today, albeit their days associated with brewing has long since gone with the buildings now being used by the Oakbank Weaver.
In fact it was 1938 when all brewing was suspended in the town for some 8 years following the discovery of a virus within the yeast. Largely blamed on the rivalries between the two Brewers, this was to become a major turning point in the directions that both companies were to take in future years.
Pikes turned its hand to making alcohol tonic water and ales and produced a highly popular but slightly intoxicating drink. Meanwhile Johnstons ventured in to the production of soft drinks and cordials, the latter of which is still produced and sold from the Johnston Cellar Door today.
Despite the rivalries and the subsequent changes in business direction, Oakbank transformed itself each Easter in to one of Australia's most popular and famous picnic race venues. First held in 1874, this picnic race meeting envelops the whole town every Easter and has recorded in excess of 10 million visitors over the years.
Aside from the racetrack, the early days saw a number of stables and associated cottages built to support the horses and staff for the annual event. Small signs of these former buildings exist in Elizabeth Street, albeit many of them have been transformed in to private residences today following the introduction of the automobile and the opening of main roads to and from Adelaide. Some became the inspiration behind further parts of South Australian history such as Mount Annan which was where Sir Hans Heysen painted his famous Frosty Morning painting.
One item of significance that is easily missed is the Oak Tree on the Main Street. The oak tree is believed to be from 1860, and has had many popular uses over the years including being the original sales point for Molly Smith's Icecreams before she had a shop built next door.
The Oakbank Heritage Walk is available all year round and each significant building has a small plaque on it highlighting its contribution to the development and history of Oakbank over the years. Brochures are available from all the local businesses in Oakbank or the Visitor Information Centres in the Adelaide Hills. For those looking for a short reflection through time and possibly a sampling of Johnstons Cordials from the cellar door, I can recommend this walk for any time of the year, perhaps with the exception of Easter time (unless of course you like horses as well !).
Thanks Steve.I might mention that the 9 hole golf course there,with greens is open to the public and not expensive....but part of some days are reserved for competition.Ideal for beginners and the not so young.Oakbank is a nice place for a stroll in fine weather and the heritage walk,would be a pleasant way to spend a few hours,taking in the historical sights.I remember my family , who lived at Strathalbyn in the 1940's,regularly purchasing the low alcohol stout from the local greengrocer during the winter and enjoying it as a medicinal drink.